Analysis

In New Police Probe, Netanyahu’s Devil Is in the Details

The danger for the prime minister isn’t just legal: His public support could crumble if he is perceived as greedy and self-indulgent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 1, 2017.
GALI TIBBON/AFP

Forget Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, global warming or World War III: The story of the day, the week, the month and perhaps the year in Israel is the  criminal investigation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which began on Monday. After months of preparation, deliberation and what critics describe as undue procrastination, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit finally gave police detectives the green light to interrogate Netanyahu. The media, which has yet to uncover the full details of the suspicions against Netanyahu, is chomping at the bit.

As far as we know, police are investigating two separate cases. Details of the first, deemed by those in the know as the lesser of the two, are already known: They involve allegations that Netanyahu was the beneficiary of improper gifts and illegal benefits from Israeli and foreign businessmen. Ronald Lauder is one of Netanyahu’s alleged benefactors.

The second case, which has remained largely secret, is being described as a “bombshell,” an “earthquake” and other such explosive adjectives. It allegedly involves contacts between Netanyahu and a well-known Israeli business figure who had a specific commercial interest in cultivating Netanyahu’s goodwill, but it still remains largely unknown, even after the attorney general’s formal announcement on Monday night. 

Some of Netanyahu’s rivals are already predicting his imminent political demise, but the celebrations, as Netanyahu himself has caustically warned, are premature. Netanyahu should know: The prime minister has ostensibly survived countless police investigations over the years, none of which yielded a career-threatening indictment. Netanyahu has been accused, suspected and even interrogated on various charges of corruption, which his supporters perennially describe as petty: from taking gifts that belonged to the Prime Minister’s Office, accepting freebies from private contractors and improperly benefitting from the generosity of millionaire friends.

In his first term in office, he barely escaped charges of masterminding a criminal conspiracy to install an attorney general in exchange for political favors. In his current tenure, Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, is facing the possibility of indictment for misusing state funds in connection with the prime minister’s home. 

Based on experience, therefore, the logical assumption is Netanyahu will ultimately emerge from his current investigations unscathed. This is an especially solid projection in light of the fact that Mandelblit has so far gone out of his way to shield Netanyahu from possible allegations of wrongdoing. He has repeatedly dismissed evidence that senior police officers and Justice Ministry attorneys believe merited interrogation and he has seemingly postponed the current probe for as long as he could. Even his statement released on Monday night, after the conclusion of Netanyahu’s first round of interrogation, was long on details of allegations against Netanyahu that have already been dismissed but short on those that prompted Mandelblit to relent to police demands to question the prime minister.

Sign up below and receive every new Chemi Shalev column directly in your inbox

Despite his bravado, however, Netanyahu isn’t out of the woods just yet. First, because the very fact that even an accommodating attorney general such as Mandelblit found it necessary to approve Netanyahu’s interrogation as a suspect is a clear indication that the evidence against the prime minister is compelling and impossible to ignore. Secondly, because it is hard to predict the dynamics of either an investigation or of public opinion before the sordid facts of the case are made public. Once these start leaking to the press, Netanyahu could be facing a much harsher reality then he is today. 

At this point, Netanyahu’s defenders are out in full force, railing against the political motivation of the charges against him and predicting that they will only make him stronger. The time-tested claims against a left-wing conspiracy of journalists and jurists out to depose Netanyahu against the voters’ will hits home among his supporters, who are bound to circle their wagons to protect the Likud leader.

Netanyahu’s protectors will find it more difficult to stand by his side, however, If Netanyahu is seen as having solicited expensive gifts, despite the fact that he had previously been investigated and warned about the same kind of behavior. The nature of the gifts could also influence Netanyahu’s public stature: if these are perceived as signs of unseemly greed or ravenous self-indulgence, if it seems that Netanyahu should have clearly recognized the impropriety of the perks he was receiving, his position might also falter.

The devil, in such cases, is in the details. Though he was later convicted on several charges of corruption, the political career of Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert effectively ended the day the public became aware – and was appalled – by the image of the cash-filled envelopes that Olmert received from New York macher Morris Talansky.

Similarly, one might say that the contents of Richard Nixon’s White House tapes ultimately did him in on Watergate, but it was the 18 1/2-minute “gap” uncovered in September 1973 that cemented his image as a crook. And that’s before we get to Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and the cigar. 

Netanyahu’s political strength rests on his image as an all-powerful politician who has survived numerous legal battles as well as political challenges. Besides an indictment, which will most likely precipitate his resignation, the greatest danger Netanyahu faces, at this point, is that details of the current investigations will puncture his public persona and portray him as a desperate and thus pathetic seeker of perks.

Once is his conduct is perceived as unbecoming or once he turns into an object of ridicule, he will reek of weakness: His rivals both inside and outside the Likud will start circling his wounded body like vultures, waiting to come in for the kill. When that happens, Netanyahu could enter into a political death spiral and the smell of new elections will be in the air.

Netanyahu is fond of dismissing allegations against him by saying “nothing will happen because nothing happened.” That’s not completely true, of course. In the Baron-Hebron affair, an overly lenient attorney general spared Netanyahu from legal indictment, and the same could happen here. But the Baron-Hebron affair also played a major role in degrading Netanyahu’s public image, in destabilizing his coalition and in facilitating Netanyahu’s crushing defeat at the hands of Ehud Barak in the 1999 elections.

The ultimate irony, if not cruelty, is that this misfortune has fallen on Netanyahu just as he is about to realize his life-long fantasy of serving as prime minister alongside a Republican president such as Donald Trump. Not only has Netanyahu gone out of his way, more than any other foreign leader, to praise Trump – accentuating the contrast between the incoming and outgoing Presidents in the process – but he has basked in reports, true or not, that he could be the rare foreign leader who gets invited to the January 20 Presidential inauguration.

But what could have been his moment of shining glory will now be tainted by the long shadow of his police interrogation: from now on, anything and everything that Netanyahu does will be scrutinized through a filter of whether it hurts him or helps him shift the limelight away from his legal travails. Unlike the President-elect, Netanyahu hasn’t yet reached a position that he can shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still remain popular.